Author's Notes: I miss all the Ziva angst of Season 7. Dear writers, can we has it back pls?
what doesn't kill you
Ziva's first memory is of the dark. She is young, five or six or so, and she is cold and cramped and crying because she cannot see anything, not even her hand in front of her face. She keeps thinking that she hears noises coming from the corners of the room, the sounds of creepy crawlies scuttling toward her.
She is in the attic of their old house, the one they moved into just after Talia was born, the one Ari isn't allowed to sleep over in (he is her brother, but he is also not her brother and mention of him makes her mother sad; this was something she does not yet understand). Ziva doesn't remember how she got into the attic, or why; but she remembers the door swinging shut and locking automatically, pressed closed no matter how much she pulls.
She remembers her father's soft voice on the other side of the wood: Ziva?
"Aba," she wails, "Aba, I'm stuck." She hears the keys jingling in his hand, she hears the soft snickety-snick of the metal slipping into the lock, and then she hears the pause that she will come to hate later on, the pause that says I have found a lesson here. A reverse snickety-snick and another jingle. "Aba?" she calls out. "Aba?"
"Are you afraid, Zivalah?" her father asks in his soft voice, his soft soft voice that he uses when he's tucking her in at night or praying at dinner.
She sniffs. "Yes," she admits, dragging her arm across her eyes. "It's cold and there are spiders."
Her father is quiet for a long time. Then he says, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I want you to be strong, stronger, the strongest, do you understand?" Then his footsteps, carefully measured, one-two-three-four-five-six, getting softer and farther away. At first Ziva does not understand, and then she screams, throwing herself against the door and beating it with her fists, yelling for AbaAbaAba because she is cold and cramped and cannot see anything, not anything, not her hands nor the wood of the door nor the monsters in the corners of the room.
She screams and cries until she can't anymore, and then she collapses against the door in a tiny shaking ball and shoves her finger in her mouth. "My father loves me," she whispers around her skin, breath hot on the wet spots. She squeezes her eyes closed and tries to fall asleep.
"My father loves me," she murmurs again.
"I'm cold," Talia mutters bitterly, rubbing at her arms. They've been walking for hours and the sun has set; Ziva's toes are starting to go numb. She is twelve, Talia ten. It has been exactly two hundred and forty-three minutes since their father kissed both of their heads and murmured, "go," into their ears, disappearing before they could even remove their blindfolds. Ziva was quicker than Talia but not quick enough to see which way their father had gone. Even if she had been, it wouldn't have helped; he'd have gone the wrong way to confuse them.
"Tough shit," Ziva snaps. She is cold too. Probably colder, because at hour two-point-five she gave a complaining Talia her hat. Now her sister's teeth are chattering, her skin pale and slippery. She doesn't eat enough, Ziva thinks, annoyed. If she just ate more she'd have better insulation, but she's always at her dance lessons and missing dinner. Ziva used to dance, but she had to stop when she turned ten; Talia is good, so Talia gets to continue, which is why she is too skinny and why she is trembling and walking slowly and being a general pain in Ziva's ass.
Her father always says that if you aren't wearing a hat you might as well not be wearing a jacket for all the good it'll do you, so Ziva sighs and shrugs off her coat and thrusts it at her sister with a glare. "Take it and shut up so I can think," she growls. Talia's face lights up as she slips her arms into the too-big coat.
"Thanks," she says. Then, "These games are so stupid. I hate Aba so much sometimes."
"Aba loves us," Ziva snaps sharply, folding her arms over her chest. She is starting to go numb around her fingertips. "He wants us to be strong."
"We are strong," Talia dismisses, shaking her head, dark curls bouncing with each turn. Talia is the prettier one. Ziva is at the age where she is starting to realize this.
She grits her teeth. "He wants us to be stronger," she insists. "The strongest. It's this way."
They walk for another two or three miles before they spot the car, parked on the side of a road. Her father is sitting inside, reading. Ziva cannot feel her arms or her legs or her face. Her skin is pale blue and her lips are chapped and frozen. At the sight of the vehicle, relief floods so fiercely through Ziva that she nearly cries out, but manages not to. She is afraid to make sudden movements because her bones feel brittle, like if she moves them too quickly they'll snap.
In the car, her father thrusts a blanket and a mug of hot chocolate at her. She cannot hold onto it because she is trembling too hard and can't move her fingers so Talia holds it to her mouth and lets her sip.
"Next time, you let your sister deal with the cold herself," her father says, looking at her with a disapproving frown in the rear-view mirror. "Everyone look out for herself first and foremost. What doesn't kill a person will make her—"
"Stronger," Ziva completes for him, and he nods, dark stare approving.
Ziva's father doesn't go to Talia's memorial. Her mother tells the guests that he has not come out of his room, that he is too bereft to leave the house, and everybody sighs, sympathetic, approving. Poor Eli David, they all think. Such a patriotic family man.
It is true that he has not left the house. He has not even left the office. But Ziva's father is not bereft, and she knows this, and her mother knows this, and on some level Ziva wonders if even the guests perhaps know this. He is not bereft, he is angry, locked away in the upstairs room making screaming phone calls and sending man after man after man to his death in the pursuit of one bomb-maker, just one. Ziva tucks herself into the kitchen pantry, the room adjacent to her father's office, and listens with her ear pressed against the wall, and she hears him. Send Sharone, he begins, then send Zabarsky then send Dotan then send Wiesman. Perhaps Ziva should feel sorry for these sacrifices, but she doesn't; if they are dying then they are weak, and the weak must be weeded out.
The problem is that their deaths prove not only their own weaknesses, but her father's. Each ghost marches, a parade of failure, and as Ziva breathes quietly and listens, each one feels like stinging satisfaction. Each one feels like yes, yes, look at your own failure, I hope you feel every single one like a tiny dagger between your eyes, like numbing cold freezing your whole body, like the explosion that ripped Talia into pieces. She thinks you got beat, Dad and it feels good, how much it hurts.
She joins Mossad the next day. Not for revenge: she loved her sister because she was her sister, but in truth they never got along. Talia was a bright spot, lithe and cheerful and beautiful, and Ziva her dark shadow. And though they loved each other with the ferocity of sisterhood, they were never friends, and even had she lived, they never would have been.
Ziva joins Mossad because sitting in the pantry, listening to her father rant and rave and lose the battle anyway, she thinks: you want me to be as strong as you, but I will be stronger. I will be the strongest.
The very first time that Ziva hates her father, she is staring at Ari's dead body and the room is silent except for Gibbs's breathing. In one twitch of a finger, she has become an only child.
Ari isn't moving, but of course he wouldn't, because Ziva doesn't miss. Ziva never misses.
Gibbs looks at her and says nothing; Ziva looks at Ari and says nothing. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, she thinks desperately, and suddenly feels herself screaming and wailing against the doors of her own body, pounding her fists against the cold, frozen expression on her face that never changes. She is screaming and crying and cold and it is dark and there are monsters in the corners but her father's footsteps recede, one-two-three-four-five-six.
She thinks I hate you. She thinks I'm sorry. She thinks, uselessly, I am the strongest.
Her expression doesn't change.
(Later, when she is crying in Gibbs's arms and begging him to remember her, she will pour the words into his shirt, what doesn't kill you, what doesn't kill you, Gibbs—and he will say, understanding, "—still hurts enough to make you wish it had.")
When the bomb goes, and the glittery fabric of her dress is seared into her skin (can't remove it all, the doctors will say; you'll always have a sparkle just there), she thinks dizzily that maybe she has become invincible. She worries, on the gurney, that she is stronger than death, that it will never conquer her and she will have to live forever with the weight of the world (because she is the only one strong enough to carry it).
Sixteen hours later she will wake up with glitter burned permanently into her flesh and Michael leaning over her, brown furrowed and fingers encircling her own. She will laugh, mind fluid and soft from the anesthesia, and understand that this is what her father had wanted all along, this inability to die. He has molded her into the perfect cast, stronger then iron and steel and death itself. The strongest.
"My father loves me," she will say to Michael, and not remember. Her smile will be wide and full of hatred. "My father loves me."
There is exactly one person stronger than she is, and she can tell the minute his hands circle her wrists and he lifts her off the floor. Her feet dangle uselessly, her shoulders tingling from lack of blood flow, and Damon Werth looks up at her, confused.
"What's happening to me?" he asks, words becoming slurred.
She feels a smile start to splash across her mouth, because this man is a gift. This man is a relief. He is proof that she is not invincible, that she is not the strongest, that she can still be beaten. He is proof that Eli David did not ruin her the way she has begun to fear that she is ruined.
Three days after they solve the case, she goes to his house. He looks surprised to see her, but lets her in anyway. "What did it feel like?" she asks hungrily, holding her cup of coffee so tightly that it scorches her fingers.
He doesn't have to ask what she means. He looks out the window and his mouth tightens into a line of grief. "It felt like dying," he murmurs. "Like being so far above everything and everyone else that you were literally dead, already dead, and so incapable of death. It felt like being dead and immortal at the same time."
She smiles. Nods. "Do you miss it?"
Damon looks at her sharply and frowns. "No," he says without hesitation. "It was the most terrifying fucking thing I've ever experienced in my entire life."
Michael is not stronger than her, just smarter, and Tony is a blind spot, not so much a weakness as an accident. When everything goes to hell Ziva wonders what the point of being the strongest is if you can still get hurt.
Everything builds, one after the other, MichaelTonyAbaandnowGibbs, and she hits Tony because she cannot take it anymore, she is the strongest but she is sick of it, sick of the cold the dark the fear the monsters in the corner and herself. She is sick of the pounding of her own fists in her head, sick of the cramped dark attic, sick of her father's retreating footsteps, Daddy I learned a lesson but I don't think it was the one you meant to teach.
Everything builds and presses in on her and wails like a siren in her ears, but when she hears the words at any cost tumble from her father's lips it all washes away. Just like that. The team is made up of two wounded men and a woman with too many holes in her heart for it to function properly, so at any cost sounds just like don't come home.
She feels relief wash through her, and already she is calm and ready and can see how it will happen, each stage. She will get within an inch of Saleem before she is overpowered. She will bite and scratch and claw but they will overpower her anyway. A few months will pass and she will shrivel away into nothing, her physical strength sacrificed for the little bauble of invincibility that will glow in her hands. And then one day they will bring her hooded into a room and shoot her, and she will lift up her hands and the bauble will float away like a dob of sunlight on the wind, opening all the doors inside her body and letting the weaknesses flow out in a river that will wash everything else away.
But of course this is not what happens. Sitting months later across the table from Gibbs, she confesses: "I did not mean to survive it."
He understands, of course he understands, because he presses a kiss to her temple and whispers: you didn't.
Her father flies to DC a year and a half after NCIS rescues her from Saleem. He does not make an appointment; when she comes in to work he is leaning against her desk.
They look at each other for a long time. She can feel the silence of the office surrounding her, can feel Tony and McGee and Gibbs waiting by the elevator, watching, hands on their guns.
"Aba," she says, thinking about holding her sister's hand while they wandered around looking for the car.
"Ziva," he answers. He hesitates (she knows this hesitation: there is a lesson coming). "You look healthy."
Instead of answering, she takes a seat and turns on her computer. "Do you remember when I was little, and you left me locked in the attic? It was winter. I was cold."
He frowns. "I remember."
Ziva stares hard at her email and then makes herself look up and meet her father's eyes. "I wish you hadn't done that," she says. Her throat tightens and her eyes fill up and she lets go of the strength that is keeping them gathered in favor of the strength that lets them fall. "I wish you had just opened the door and told me it was all right and that there were no monsters in the corners and I wish that you had let me dance ballet and I wish that when Talia died, you had gone to the memorial. I wish you had gone to the memorial, Aba, because she never knew that you loved her and it would have been comforting for her to have been lied to, just that once."
Her father's fist tightens and his jaw twitches when he says, "I did love Talia." There is such conviction in his voice that Ziva looks harder at him and reconsiders.
"I see," she says.
After a moment, he says, tentatively, "I love you, too."
She shrugs. "I have a father that loves me," she will tell him, and her throat will tighten as she thinks of Gibbs.